The Torre del Lago Opera Festival has been going since 1930 to celebrate the music of Giacomo Puccini in a specially built open air theatre by the side of the lake near where he lived for much of the latter part of his life. I had got it in my head that this year was the 150th anniversary of his birth so I thought it a good time to go with my wife to the festival. In fact Maestro Puccini would be 155 this year but his younger colleague Pietro Mascagni was born 150 years ago and he was the first director of that initial festival so it was still appropriate. To mark the occasion the festival presented Mascagni’s immortal Cavalleria Rusticana in a double bill with Il Tabarro, the first of Puccini’s Il Trittico, followed on the next night with his last opera Turandot, famous for the great tenor aria, Vincero.
We stayed in Lucca, the beautiful walled city in Tuscany where Giacomo was born in a long line of musicians. So on this brief weekend expedition last month we had the opportunity to see his birth home, now beautifully restored with an illuminating exhibition of mementoes of his life including the Steinway piano on which he composed his most famous operas; his villa in Torre del Lago where his remains are buried with his close family in a specially built mausoleum; and three fine opera performances in the great open air theatre.
Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secundo Maria Puccini was born in Lucca on December 22, 1858, the last of a dynasty of composers who for over a century monopolised the musical life of the city. He grew up with his six sisters and one brother in a house in San Lorenzo Square. He received his first musical instruction from his father, Michele, before his premature death in 1864. Then, in 1868, Giacomo enrolled in a violin class at the G. Pacini Musical Institute, a school well-known even outside Lucca. He then took the composition class taught by Carlo Angeloni. His first compositions were written in Lucca, including the Mass for 4 voices he wrote for his diploma in 1880.
The legend goes that when he was 18 he walked across the Tuscan hills to Pisa to hear a performance of Verdi’s Aida, which had opened in Cairo in 1871 and had its European première in La Scala, Milan the following year. It had taken Italy by storm and the 18 year old Puccini was so impressed that he resolved to concentrate his writing career on opera. From 1880 to 1883 Puccini attended the Conservatory in Milan where he was taught by Antonio Bazzini and Amilcare Ponchielli. Immediately after his final exam at the Conservatory he composed his first opera, Le Villi, which he submitted unsuccessfully, to the Sonzogno Competition for a one-act opera. Nevertheless, some of his friends were able to stage a first performance of the opera in 1884. This is how Giulio Ricordi, the most important musical editor in Italy, came to know Puccini. He not only published Le Villi in his house catalogue, but also commissioned Puccini to write a second opera, Edgar. Its composition was long and difficult, and the world première in 1889 was a complete failure.
Meanwhile, Puccini had fallen in love with a married woman, Elvira Bonturi, who in 1886 left her husband for him. It was eighteen years before Elvira’s first husband died and they could legalise their relationship and legitimise their son Antonio, who by then was already 17 years old. In the early years together the family lived in straitened financial conditions in various rented houses, sometimes having to separate and stay as guests of relatives. Then with his third opera, Manon Lescaut (1893) Puccini enjoyed much greater success and could set his family up more comfortably.
In 1896 he had an even greater success with La Bohème which quickly achieved international fame. With the royalties he now bought two buildings in Torre del Lago and Chiatri, a short distance from Lucca, and developed them into two fine country villas which he kept until his death. He also had a house in Boscolungo Abetone and rented an apartment in Milan.
His next two operas were also big worldwide hits: Tosca (1900) and Madame Butterfly (1904) which made Puccini the most rich and famous living composer of his day. Leading international opera houses now put on productions of nearly complete cycles of his operas with the composer present. These took place in Buenos Aires and London in 1905, in Budapest and London again in 1906, in New York in 1907 and in Paris in 1908.
In 1910, for the first time a world premiere of a Puccini opera took place outside of Italy: La Fanciulla del West was first performed in New York and it was a spectacular event. It may have been the first time any theatrical piece presented a story of the Wild West. In 1913 Puccini received an extremely lucrative commission from a Viennese publisher to write an operetta, which formed the basis of his next opera, La Rondine (1917) severely delayed by the effects of the international crisis and then the First World War. Puccini withdrew to Torre del Lago for most of the war and composed the three one-act operas of Il Trittico which was again premièred in New York after the war, but this time without the composer present. In 1919 he felt able to travel again, this time to London where the following year he saw the English première of Il Trittico. He then went to Vienna to witness the German language premières of La Rondine and Il Trittico. By now in these cities most of his operas were in production at the same time.
However, despite this evidence of his increasing international fame, the more complex and progressive musical language of his later operas were proving less popular back in Italy where the public preferred the more accessible style of his earlier works from Manon Lescaut to Madame Butterfly.
Still his earnings from royalties enabled him to indulge his passions for cars, he would own at least a dozen despite a serious accident in one; yachts, he owned four, and guns for hunting on the marshes around Torre del Lago, I saw at least a dozen still hanging up in the villa. Above all were his houses and in 1921 he had built a new villa in Viareggio, nearer the coast than Torre del Lago. It was mainly in this house that he composed his last opera, Turandot. The work was very difficult and Puccini came close to giving it up several times. He had been a heavy smoker for years and by now the sore throats of which he had complained were diagnosed as symptoms of laryngeal cancer. He was admitted to a clinic in Brussels where they were experimenting with radiation therapy but Puccini survived the operation by just a few days and died on November 29, 1924 aged 65. He had not completed Turandot and his son chose a relatively unknown composer to complete it rather than bring in some one more accomplished who might then take all the credit for any success. The great Arturo Toscanini who had conducted many of Puccini’s premières was not impressed and in the first performance laid down his baton at the point where Puccini’s writings had stopped. Nevertheless it has gone on to be one of his most performed operas.
In his lifetime Puccini received many honours from most of the kings and emperors. Mussolini made him a senator which I like to think was accepted as a parallel to the great Verdi at the time of the foundation of a united Italy rather than in sympathy with Il Duce’s politics. So where does he stand in the canon of great composers of operatic music? For the purist no doubt Mozart or Verdi or Wagner stands higher. They were more innovative and through endeavour, after all Mozart died at 37, they have left a larger body of work. But for the public as a whole Puccini is probably more popular and in bringing more people into opera I think his work should be considered as parallel. Eleven of his operas number among the 200 most performed operas worldwide over a recent three-year period. He was the most performed composer among his Italian contemporaries, Mascagni, Giordano, Cilea, and others and remains so 100 years later. By the time of his death in 1924 he had earned $4 million, a colossal sum.
He is characterised as writing in the verismo style, portraying some of the more sordid sides of life, but this is only true of a few of his operas. He was far more wide ranging than that and was genuinely innovative in musical form. Above all, it seems to me he had a sense of his potential worldwide audience as exemplified by the settings of his most famous operas: Manon Lescaut-from Paris to New Orleans; La Bohème in Paris again; Tosca in Rome; Madame Butterfly in Japan; La Fanciulla del West in cowboy country; and Turandot in China. My wife and I have seen 26 different productions of Puccini’s operas in seven different opera houses and rate them as among the most enjoyable of all our many nights at the opera.
Copyright David C Pearson 2013 All rights reserved